CDE: Participation rate only 83 percent for 12th grade tests

Only about 83 percent of Colorado high school seniors took new science and social studies tests last month, the Colorado Department of Education estimates.

That participation rate is significantly below the 95 percent rate required by the federal government and the 99 percent or so that has been the norm for state standardized tests.

“I did believe there would be fewer kids taking the tests,” Commissioner Robert Hammond told Chalkbeat Colorado, but he said he thought the participation rate would be about 95 percent.

This autumn was the first time seniors have taken state standardized tests. Science tests were previously given in the 10th grade, and the social studies exams were new this year.

The additional tests came at a time of rising public concern about the amount of testing, and seniors in some districts joined in that reaction by not taking the tests.

Student test boycotts seemed to be most effective in the Boulder, Cherry Creek and Douglas County, where a total of about 5,000 seniors didn’t take the tests last month, according to media reports. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story about the boycotts.)

In a Dec. 2 letter to superintendents, Hammond said CDE projected that about 109,000 science and social studies tests would be given, but that about only 91,240 tests actually were taken. (Read Hammond’s letter at the bottom of this article.)

Given two tests per student, CDE figures also indicate that about 5,000 students opted out.

But Hammond’s letter said, “Most districts were in the high 80 to high 90 percentage participation rates, with just nine districts below 60 percent participation.” CDE officials declined to identify those districts because the statistics are preliminary and won’t be validated until January.

Federal law requires that states set penalties for districts and schools when student test participation falls below 95 percent. In Colorado that means district and school accreditation ratings are lowered. But the impact of sub-par participation on 12th grade tests won’t be known until next year, after the main set of statewide tests are given in the spring and all participation rates are calculated.

In his letter to superintendents Hammond said CDE will take a “holistic” approach to participation rates and accreditation ratings.

“We asked districts to do everything possible to have students participate in the tests,” Hammond said, saying such district efforts could be a factor in final ratings.

Districts have the right to appeal accreditation ratings, a process known as request for reconsideration. The department can change ratings if a district makes a good case for extenuating circumstances.

Hammond also said, “Clearly there are some districts that we will be talking to … trying to find out what are their plans for improving [participation] in the spring test and what happened” in November.

Hammond said he doesn’t think any districts actively encouraged students to boycott tests, but he did say, “In some very limited cases there may be some districts that were very supportive of their kids not taking the tests.”

(All 17 seniors at Mancos High School boycotted the tests, according to a Nov. 19 article in the Mancos Times. The newspaper quoted Superintendent Brian Hanson as saying, “That’s outstanding. … Our kids have finally decided that enough is enough.”)

Ilana Spiegel, an activist with the parent advocacy group SPEAK, said, “This fall you heard students say, ‘These tests don’t matter for our future.’ This spring you will hear more parents ask, ‘What do we really want for our children?’”

Given all the debate over testing, Hammond noted that tests for seniors might not be an issue in the future.

“I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some change” in the testing system passed by the 2015 legislature. “We may be dealing with a one-year anomaly,” he said.

He also said participation will be more important next spring, when students starting in grade three take the new online PARCC language arts and math tests. “There should be no surprises, but if there are that will be serious.”